Inside Parliament: Speaker tells Major he must watch his language: - Boothroyd outlaws 'peddling an untruth' - Beckett raises patients' wait for treatment - Lords loosen Sunday trading restrictions

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Indy Politics
Betty Boothroyd, the Commons Speaker, was in fine voice yesterday as she barked out the reprimands during the rowdiest Prime Minister's Questions for many a week. For whatever reason, however, she retreated from pressing John Major to withdraw his remark that Margaret Beckett, Labour's deputy leader, was 'peddling an untruth' over claims that elderly people were being refused NHS treatment.

Mr Major's charge - which, far from withdrawing, he followed with accusations that she was 'misleading' the House and 'inaccurate' - provoked the first Speaker's intervention over 'unparliam entary' language involving a prime minister in memory. In the end, Mrs Beckett let it pass too, though not without a fight.

'Isn't it a scandal that because of the changes the Government has made in the health service, elderly people are being denied the right to hospital treatment on the grounds of their age?' Mrs Beckett demanded. 'You are either ill-informed or scaremongering,' Mr Major retorted, insisting that the two patients featuring in yesterday's BBC reports had been offered better options. Labour MPs shouted 'withdraw, withdraw' as Mrs Beckett declared she was not aware she had misled the House. 'Indeed, there is a letter from one of the hospitals concerned apologising for the way in which the patient in question was treated, which doesn't sound to me like something that did not happen. Why don't you recognise reality? Elderly people in this country are being clobbered by VAT on gas and electricity. When they are ill they are being refused treatment in hospital. What have you got against the elderly in this country?'

Seizing on the change of tack, Mr Major said it showed clearly that she was wrong. 'Once again Labour are needlessly alarming people, precisely as they did before the election by claiming we would privatise the health service.' Challenged by Alan Keen, Labour MP for Feltham and Heston, the Prime Minister insisted that more and better treatments were now available in the health service, while waiting times were shorter.

He took the same line despite an intervention from Labour's Glenda Jackson, MP for Hampstead & Highgate, repeating that the chief executive of the Royal Free Hospital, in her constituency, had apologised for the fact that one of the patients had been denied treatment. 'Are you saying that the chief executive of the Royal Free is attempting to mislead this House and the country and is scare-mongering?'

Mr Major replied: 'Perhaps you would like to tell the House how many more patients the Royal Free had treated since the health reforms, and perhaps you would stop mis-stating matters.'

Nick Brown, of Labour's Treasury team, later complained that the Prime Minister had neither withdrawn the remark, nor apologised for it. As Ms Boothroyd responded that she deemed the re- phrasing acceptable, Dennis Skinner, Labour MP for Bolsover, asked for his slate to be wiped clean after the eight occasions when he had crossed her. She replied: 'I wipe the slate clean on each occasion. That is why you and I are such good friends today.'

Mr Major had no particular pressing need for friends during yesterday's session, but David Evans, one of his noisiest admirers, obliged none the less. In traditional raucous form and invoking as usual his wife, Janice, the MP for Welwyn and Hatfield bawled: 'Can you tell Janice whether it was the Conservative government that imposed a higher rate of tax in 1978?' Recalling the top tax rate of 98p in the pound under Labour, he asked: 'If it wasn't the Conservative government, was it that lot opposite?'

But the most recent Treasury initiative, the decision to release minutes of meetings with the Governor of the Bank of England, drew fire in questions to the Chancellor, Kenneth Clarke. Sir Peter Tapsell, the Tory MP for Lindsey East and a former stockbroker, appeared to echo the reservations of some City analysts when he spoke of the danger of unsettling the bond, stock and currency markets. It looked like a speculator's charter, similar to the ERM, he declared.

Wednesday's disclosures of the three last sets of minutes provoked ire from Gordon Brown, shadow Chancellor. 'When in January you were saying in public that the recovery was becoming robust, in private we now know you were telling the Governor that it was feeble . . .' he said. 'How can this country ever trust you, not just on tax but on anything you ever say about the management of the economy?'

That 'bizarre' use of the minutes, Mr Clarke retorted, 'explains why people have been so cautious about openness . . . All you have ever said is cut interest rates, cut interest rates - at times of boom and at times of recession. You would have caused recurrent financial crisis. You say nothing on tax, nothing on borrowing, nothing on supply-side measures.'

Meanwhile, in an unexpected show of liberalism, the Lords changed the Sunday Trading Bill to let motor suppliers, garden centres and DIY shops trade without restriction on Sundays regardless of size - despite government warnings that it could jeopardise the agreement so painstakingly agreed in the Commons after 45 years of trying.

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